Your idea is worthless, Part 1

Almost every day, a few ideas pop into my head. It’s like I have a slow idea popping machine built into my head. I come across an annoyance or obstacle at home or work, pop. Something doesn’t work right, pop. I’m sure many of you are the same way.

Don’t like the way your smartphone does ringtones → pop!
Feel you have to press too many buttons to adjust the AC in your car → pop!
Amazon missed your delivery by two days → pop!

Life is so full of annoyances big and small, I’m certain all of us have our idea popping machine in overdrive all the time.

Sometimes, these ideas are small.

Other times, they are big, world changing ones.

“Someday, someone will come up with this.” you tell your friend.…as you ruminate about your new world changing idea.

But you know what? All our ideas, big or small, world changing or not — are totally worthless.

Wait, what?

Yes all these ideas are worthless.

They are worthless, because they share the same fate as the zillion photos that never leave your smartphone, get printed on glossy photo paper, or get hung on walls. Similarly, your ideas will never get out of your head, and see the light of day. At least your pictures can brag they made it to social media, but your poor ideas… not much hope for them.

So how do we make ideas come to life?

Wouldn’t it be nice if a genie appeared and we just ask him to?

Genie: Which idea would you like me to materialize master?

Ok, let’s wake up, not gonna happen.

However, a tweet did appear in my twitter feed a few months ago (let’s call it a digital genie?), someone tweeted about a five week online course from IDEO called, ‘From Ideas to Action’.

You’ve probably heard of IDEO, a global design company, known for their Design Thinking philosophy. IDEO works across a dizzying array of challenges: from designing A New Level of Hospitality For Business Class Travel for Lufthansa , to Envisioning the Future Kitchen for IKEA. Check them out here:

But worry not, what follows isn’t another long exposé on the virtues of design thinking. Books and articles abound on that topic, and you can start your journey with Tim’s own book ‘Change by Design’.

From Ideas to Action

What follows, is a commentary on my first hand experience applying design thinking during IDEO’s five week course. Here is a handy link to the course:

I found many similarities between design thinking and the world of software development, a world I live in, and I will allude to those similarities as we go along.

From Ideas to Action’ has a 3 part outline: Ideate, Prototype and Iterate.

Ideate: explore divergent and convergent thinking, including IDEO’s favorite ideation methods.
Prototype: learn how to make your ideas tangible so you can gather feedback from others.
Iterate: embrace the power of trial by error as you move your prototype forward.

You will notice off the bat, that the outline is really simple.

Not only that, hidden in this simple outline, is the secret for bringing an idea to life, the haunting question we started with.

Let’s return to our question.

“How do make our ideas come to life?”
We bring ideas to life by iterating the Ideate and Prototype steps.

Simple and powerful. The secret sauce says, we do these steps once ( Ideate1, Prototype1), we do them again ( Ideate2, Prototype2 ), we do them yet again ( Ideate3, Prototype3 ), and so on… until we get to our desired solution. My simple diagram below, drawn on the fabulous iPad app ‘Paper’ illustrates the idea.

Iterating between the Ideate and Prototype steps.

The key to design thinking is doing multiple small experiments. Each Ideate-Prototype cycle is an experiment. You learn from each experiment, and keep moving forward.

Humans are born #BornExperimenters, as we age however, we sort of forget this. Remember how you learnt to make your first paper plane? First sheet of paper, you probably chose the wrong type of paper which wouldn’t even fold correctly! Second sheet of paper, you made some folds and then got stuck half way. Daddy, what do I do next? By the third sheet, you maybe got all the way to the end, but your wobbly plane wouldn’t take off. By the tenth sheet, things finally worked out, your plane took to the air, did a nice loop-the-loop and landed gracefully. Each step was an experiment to learn something new and keep moving forward.

It’s worth remembering this important nugget:

The art of moving from ideas to action is by experimenting your way forward.

I found out, that even though I was already familiar with many concepts, the real learning from the course is in the details and tweaks.

Ready to dive in ?

Getting Started

Let’s start at the beginning. You have an idea.

No…wait….hold up…

Before you have an idea, you have a problem.

First we need to learn to state a problem in a more useful manner. IDEO suggests framing the problem as a challenge. Challenges always start with ‘How might we…’, for example:

How might we inspire households to adopt healthier eating habits?’.

I find the idea of phrasing a problem as a challenge quite appealing. The ‘how might we’ is hopeful, ‘might’ emphasizes we don’t know yet and ‘we’ reminds us that this is a collaborative exercise. Phrasing a problem as a challenge invites you to overcome it. A problem, on the other hand, looms large like an obstacle. IDEO provides four pre-packaged challenges for the course, or lets you can create your own.

I chose to create my own challenge. I must warn you. It is a mundane one. It has always bothered me to no end that our modern lives are splattered with so many mundane tasks shrieking for attention. Why not tackle one of these problems here?

It has to do with dirty dishes.

How might we take the drudgery out of dishwashing!?’.

Yes, I know, ‘ so many interesting problems to solve Priyank, and you are worried about dishwashing?’. I really am, it will make it to the top ten mundane tasks humans perform list for sure, right there with the countless hours we spend cleaning our homes, or cooking our food.

Now that you have an appropriate challenge, or have reframed your problem as a challenge, you have to write down all assumptions related to the challenge. You can write them down in a list, or describe them with visual aids.

Here are some of my assumptions for the dishwashing challenge:

  • A typical family spends 1.5 h in washes dishes every day
  • 100 million families in US alone, ~50m dishwashers used, ~75 million hours a day!
  • Long cycle: Pre-rinse 30 min, Load 15 min, Run 40 min, Stock: 20 mins
  • Dishwashers haven’t really changed since 1960s, that is 50+ years!
  • A typical dishwasher is next to the sink and has a drying feature built in

I also mapped out a typical dishwashing process for an American household:

Dishwashing process for a typical American household.

So far so good, we’ve rephrased our problem as challenge, and listed our assumptions.

What next?

It’s All About People, People

As you read more about design thinking, you will come across a concept that is fundamental to the process: that of empathy. Without truly seeing, feeling and experiencing what others do, how do you create good design? I would encourage you to watch this video on Empathy :

You next step is an obvious one — talk to people about your challenge and validate your assumptions. Direct feedback at this stage helps you refine the challenge and validate your assumptions.

For my dishwashing challenge, a colleague indicated she actually likes doing dishes and finds the activity therapeutic. She puts on her earphones, dials into her favorite music or podcast, which makes the chore enjoyable for her!

On noticing the ‘Pre-Rinse’ step in my Pre-Rinse->Load->Run->Restock chain, one gentleman indicated he doesn’t really pre-rinse the dishes. Dishwashers have evolved and don’t need pre-rinse anymore. His wife disagreed however, so the jury is out on that one!

Now that we have refined our challenge, and validated our assumptions, we move onto the fun part.

We ideate!

But wait. One last thing.

‘Oh, not again Priyank, enough with the one last thing…’ … I hear you!

The 3 Lenses of Design Thinking

The 3 lenses of design thinking ©IDEO, drawn by yours sincerely on Paper by #Fiftythree

The 3 lenses are called: Desirability, Feasibility and Viability

They apply throughout the process and act as a guiding principle for making decisions. Imagine them as a lighthouse for your #DesignThinkingShip out at sea in rough water, thrown around by dark waves — the lighthouse nudges your ship in the right direction, slowly but surely leading you home.

Since design thinking is a human-centric process, Desirability is all about the hopes, fears and desires of people. What do they really crave for, how is it for them in the current situation, will our solution truly make their lives better?

I was happy to discover that the lenses also place enormous value on business viability. What good is a solution if you can’t bring it to life? Or if it costs so much that you can never afford it (Viability). If it takes so much time, you can never complete it (Feasibility). Or requires material or space that doesn’t even exist(Feasibility).

So far so good? Let’s recap everything we’ve talked about so far:

  • Phrasing our problem as a challenge
  • Testing our assumptions by talking to people
  • Applying the 3 lenses to our challenge and overall guiding principle

And NOW we are ready to dive into the Ideate and Prototype steps!

Continue reading Your ideas is worthless, Part 2.